Seattle Home Inspector's Blog


What the heck is an AFCI?

It seems like just yesterday that AFCI (Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter) type circuit breakers became required on 120 volt outlets in bedrooms.  It was the year 2002, and there was incredible gnashing of teeth over them. 

There were many who thought they were useless, a waste of money and a burden to the consumer. 

There were also complaints of nuisance tripping, after all, what is one to think if every time you plugged in your vacuum and turned it on the breaker tripped.  Certainly there were some bugs to work out and pretty Brand Feeder AFCIsoon it became clear that if the vacuum was tripping there was in fact an issue with the vacuum and not the breaker---it was just doing its job.  Of course some motors were not designed to not emit the kinds of signals that indicated an arcing condition to the brain of the AFCI and adjustments to both the brain and the motors had to be done.

Another issue with the AFCI’s was that it took a couple of years to get even electricians on board as to what an “outlet” was.  Some electricians and even jurisdictional inspectors interpreted the code requirement that all “bedroom outlets” be AFCI protected to mean “receptacle outlets.”  That however, was not what was intended.  An “outlet” can be defined as any place electricity is used.  Like lights, smoke alarms, the fans in hydronic heaters or gas fireplaces etc.  Anything that utilizes 120 volts and is located in the bedroom is supposed to be AFCI protected.

I still routinely find some of these 2002 houses with only the receptacles on the AFCI circuit.  By the next code cycle this was clarified and we started to see “all” bedroom outlets on the AFCI circuits.

There was always some question about the efficacy of these early AFCI breakers because they did not provide protection of the wiring for both parallel arcs and series arcs.  A justifiable complaint in my opinion since series type arcs are perhaps one of the most likely causes of electrical fires (like what would occur at a loose connection) and they required relatively high levels of fault current to activate the devices.  But they did pave the way for the “combination type” AFCI that could detect both series arcs (loose connections) and parallel arcs (line to neutral---short circuits). 

In 2005, the NEC (National Electric Code) required that all AFCI’s be “combination type.”  Due to political pressures the branch/feeder type would be allowed until 2008---never underestimate whacky.

In 2008 (with a start date of June, 2009) the combination type became required instead of the branch feeder type and they became required in more locations in the home than in just the bedrooms. 

Some States, like Washington State, in their infinite wisdom (again never underestimate whacky), decided to maintain the requirement for them to only be in bedrooms and amended the NEC to that effect.  This amendment was ignored by the larger cities, like Seattle, Bellevue and Renton where the full requirement of the 2008 National Electrical Code is enforced.  In brand new construction in Seattle, it is now common to run into service panels with many of these AFCI breakers---instead of just the bedroom circuits.  Now AFCI's will be found protecting the outlets in family rooms, dining rooms, living rooms, parlors, libraries, dens, bedrooms, sunrooms, recreation rooms, closets, hallways, or similar rooms or areas.

All of this represents some problems for the home inspector---we have to be conscious of the jurisdiction we are inspecting in.  Of course inspectors have always had to take the jurisdiction they are inspecting in into account.

How does the inspector share this information with their client? 

Obviously it will vary depending on the house.  A pre-2002 house is pretty simple, we can ignore the issue (not a good idea in my opinion) or we can inform our clients that the overall fire safety of the home can be improved by the installation of AFCI breakers.  This of course is going to be greatly affected by the existing condition of the wiring in the home.  For example some panels won’t have room for them and of course if the house has an old fuse panel it becomes even more complicated.  Certainly in the context of a service change they should be added and the older the wiring is, the more benefit that can be derived by their presence. 

For houses built between 2002 and 2009, the inspector might want to consider recommending upgrading the older style “Branch/Feeder” type AFCI's to the safer  “Combination Type" AFCI's. Obviously the client would not be “required” to upgrade, but I still consider it a good recommendation---and then let the client decide.  I also like this approach because there were some recalled breakers during this time period that will automatically be eliminated if they are upgraded.

For a much more enlightened and thorough treatise on AFCI breakers please visit Douglas Hansen’s, AFCI’s Come of Age.


Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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Comment balloon 31 commentsCharles Buell • December 09 2012 07:25AM


A good home inspector has the people skills to recommend upgrades without making the home sound like it is falling down. We as real estate agents want our buyers to have a safe home while not losing the transaction do a home inspector painting a worst case situation.

Posted by Steve Davis, Carlsbad CA (Davis Coastal Properties) about 6 years ago

Nice stuff Charles. Sometimes still, whenever I try to explain to clients that they have AFCI outlets in the bedrooms, they say "Huh?"

Have a great day!

Posted by Fred Hernden, CMI, Albuquerque area Master Inspector (Superior Home Inspections - Greater Albuquerque Area) about 6 years ago

I sold a house and it had one of these breakers in the master bedroom. The new owner moves in and calls me and says there are electrical problems after vacuuming a room he lost power. We threw the main breakers and checked everything and with a tension building by the new owner thinking he got taken..... until finally locating this little breaker in an outlet in the bedroom corner....good post.

Posted by Richie Alan Naggar, agent & author (people first...then business Ran Right Realty ) about 6 years ago

Then there are those few that trip and never want to reset.

Posted by Rob Ernst, Reno, NV-775-410-4286 Inspector & Energy Auditor (Certified Structure Inspector) about 6 years ago

Charles, Great information on this subject, however, as you said, local codes need to be followed. Some local codes would not allow what others do. I was designing an electrical system for the city of Chicago one time and needed to look up the local codes for the area the system was being installed in. They would not allow modular wiring and everything in the electrical panels had to be hard wired like a house. So we had to design around that. Interesting about variations throughout the country regarding local building and electrical codes.

Posted by Les & Sarah Oswald, Broker, Realtor and Investor (Realty One Group) about 6 years ago

Informative post, Charlie... Thanks. My condo, built in 1980, doesn't even have the old version of AFCI. Thanks for the reminder though, I need to upgrade the old circuit breaker box in 2013. 

Posted by Rene Fabre, Marketing in the Digital Age (First American Title) about 6 years ago

Steve, and that can be quite a dance at times :)

Fred, I too find that the vast majority of clients have never heard of AFCI's or think I am talking about GFCI's.

Richie, I have heard about point of use AFCI's but I have yet to see one.

Rob, I would take that to be an indication of  a problem :)

Sarah and Les, yes there can be lots of differences from one jurisdiction to the next---but the I-codes are leveling the playing field in many respects

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 6 years ago

Rene, in 1980 no one likely even dreamed they would be possible :)

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 6 years ago

Charles, I don't know enough to talk about why a GFCI is any different than a AFCI...they may be the same for all I know, but I do understand their importance.  I live in an area bounded by a few different jurisdictions with building code requirements that are miles apart and it's not always easy for a buyer or seller to understand why something that must be addressed in one area is not the same as a requirement the next block over.

Posted by Nick T Pappas, Madison & Huntsville Alabama Real Estate Resource (Assoc. Broker/Broker ABR, CRS, SFR, e-Pro, @Homes Realty Group, @HomesBirmingham & Providence Property Mgmnt, LLC Huntsville AL) about 6 years ago

Nick, it is simply a matter of which jurisdiction has adopted the higest standards.   There is nothing wrong with someone buying a home in an area with lower standards but making the client aware of what they are buying is about all we can do.

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 6 years ago

An interesting topic Charles.

With respect to AFCI protection on the smoke alarms, I do not want the smoke alarm AFCI protection on the same circuit as the wall outlet AFCI protection. As we know, the AFCI circuit breaker provides additional circuit monitoring to protect against fire ignition. However, there is no guarantee that the AFCI will prevent all sources of fire ignition on that circuit. It is possible for the appliance connected to the wall outlet to fail and ignite a fire at the same time the AFCI circuit breaker detects a fault and removes power to the entire circuit.

It is also possible for smoke alarms to fail in a manner likely to ignite a fire, so AFCI protection on the smoke alarm makes sense. However, combining the AFCI protection for the wall outlets and the smoke alarm for the room of the wall outlets creates a significant risk of a smoke alarm being disabled by the source of ignition.

For example, it is possible for the failure of a switching power supply on a device with a rechargeable battery. The decay/failure of the electronic device is progressive and may cause excessive heat in the rechargeable device. The progressive failure may reach the point of detection by the AFCI circuit breaker at the point when the excessive heat to the rechargeable device has reached the point of ignition.

I do not want the AFCI circuit breaker to remove power to my smoke alarms if the fire has already been ignited by the electrical fault.

Great topic Charles.   In my opinion, there is a risk of fire in every home. AFCI protection may reduce some of those risks of fire, yet it will not eliminate all risk of fire. Awareness to the areas of presence/absence of AFCI protection is something every home buyer should consider.


Posted by Jim Mushinsky (Centsable Inspection) about 6 years ago

Jim, there is no problem with the smokes and the receptacles being on the same AFCI that I know of----in fact they are often that way in small one bedroom condos.  The number of ACFI's is a function of the potential loads on the circuits.  That said I would have to say that generally speaking the AFCI's are typically on one of the bedroom lighting circuits.  There is no issue with what circuit they are on and whether it would disable the smokes because they also have battery backup.  And of course, they are not going to eliminate the chance of all fires.  While no system is fool proof---these devices are a serious improvment from electrical installations 1901---especially the combination type AFCI's.

The scenario you describe with the battery charger is exactly the scenario of why we have moved from branch/feeder devices to combination devices.  The combination type devices are much better at "reading" those kinds of faults.

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 6 years ago

Good Morning Charles,

Excellent Topic...and having proper circuit protection is very important. This is way too technical for the average homeowner.  That is why the of a Home Inspector is so important.  Your role is vital in each an every transaction that I do

Posted by C. Lloyd McKenzie, Living Albuquerque about 6 years ago

Was not aware of the AFCI , great information.

Posted by Chuck Mixon, Cutler Bay Specialist, GRI, CDPE, BPOR (The Keyes Company) about 6 years ago

Lloyd, I spend a lot of time with buyers going over what they do, why and how to test the devices---all part of what is necessary to  own and maintain a home these days.

Chuck, I hear that a lot---I still even find an occasional person that does not know what a GFCI is.  GFCI's have been around since the 70's (40+ years) while AFCI's have been around for about 10 years---even 10 years seem like a long time :)

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 6 years ago

You want wacky, here in the Montreal area, the same 'code' is interpreted to mean only the master bed room. Many homes still don't have the required GFCIs let alone AFCIs. And few understand the difference.

Posted by Robert Butler, Montreal Home Inspector | Aspect Inspection (Aspect Inspection) about 6 years ago

Robert, that is amazing---how exactly do they arrive there? :)

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 6 years ago

Never cared for that particular 'upgrade'. Why not just make every breaker trip super easy. Seems like that is what they intended.

Posted by Than Maynard, Broker - Licensed to List & Sell - 405-990-8862 (Coldwell Banker Heart of Oklahoma) about 6 years ago

Than, this is actually what it takes to make them more sensative---eventually all breakers will be like this I am pretty sure---unless something better comes along :)

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 6 years ago

I'm sick of all these "conservatives" that claim the government has no right to demand product safety and requirement on consumer goods and services. Seat belts, air bags, helmets, light switches, light bulbs, etc. whatever the government finally gets around to regulating they scream how it will make the product too expensive and life goes on. I wish they would all just shut up.

Posted by Gregory Bain, For Homes on the Jersey Shore (Mezzina Real Estate & Insurance) about 6 years ago

Gregory, I keep trying to figure to what point in time people want the clock turned back to.  I cannot think of any earlier time I would want to go back to as we would have to accept all the stuff that people did not like about that time as well.

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 6 years ago

In CT 2002 is not the date AFCIs were first required, it was 2005. As for the latest requirement, we aren't there yet. 

Posted by James Quarello, Connecticut Home Inspector (JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC) about 6 years ago

There's a lesson for us and a valuable one. The couple inspectors I like to use write up just about everything that bothers them and not so much just what is in the municipal codes.

Posted by Joel Weihe, Helping you to use your VA home loan benefits (Realty World Alliance) about 6 years ago

When they aren't present I note it as a recommendation.  I can't keep up with the different jurisdictions (I inspect in 19 different ones) and their requirements.

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 6 years ago

Jim, even here there are different implementation dates around the state.  We are likely going to bypass the entire 2011 and adopt the 2014.

Joel, all information is good---whatever the impetus

Jay, nor can I, whether I do know or not alters ho

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 6 years ago

This is an interesting discussion and with so many different ordinances and jurisdictions, I would always defer to the inspect--in this case, you!

Posted by Melissa Zavala, Broker, Escondido Real Estate, San Diego County (Broadpoint Properties) about 6 years ago

Charlie, It wont be long that these will as familiar as the GFCI's are today. Does slow down the inspection though ;)

Posted by Donald Hester, NCW Home Inspections, LLC (NCW Home Inspections, LLC) about 6 years ago

It is a good idea to point out all safety issues.  It doesn't mean the seller will address all of them, but the buyer can take care of things once they move in.

Posted by Joan Whitebook, Consumer Focused Real Estate Services (BHG The Masiello Group) about 6 years ago

Melissa, trust me, I wish at times I had some one to defer too:)

Don, it sure do---lots of running around verifying that everything is "off" when tested.

Joan, for sure---unless some are actually "missing" and then there might be some arm wrestling :)

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 6 years ago

Thanks for another helpful "learing to speak home inspection 101 series" informative blog post. Love your pieces and the time, passion you put into them to help the reader, follower.

Posted by Andrew Mooers | 207.532.6573, Northern Maine Real Estate-Aroostook County Broker (MOOERS REALTY) about 6 years ago

Andrew, thanks for your kind words

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 6 years ago